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Zero tolerance policies enacted after Columbine massacre need to go away, panelist says

Inspired by the 1999 assault on Columbine High School and the horrific roster of school shootings since then, officials developed a "zero tolerance" approach to disciplining students whose actions touch on violence, no matter how tangentially. Now, a panel appointed by the state legislature has decided that the policy isn't working and that it needs to be rethought from the schoolroom floor up.

When it comes to punishment, one size definitely doesn't fit all in the view of attorney Kim Dvorchak, executive director of the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, and the juvenile-defense-counsel representative on the task force.

Kim Dvorchak.
Kim Dvorchak.

"We're talking about children of a variety of ages, a variety of maturity levels, and a whole range of intent, from benign to serious," she says. "And if we don't make a case-by-case assessment of each child's situation, we're really cutting our kids short."

Dvorchak is sympathetic to creators of the zero-tolerance model, whom she sees as having had their hearts in the right place. "I think it was embraced as a way to try to treat all kids equally," she notes. "And there is a valid concern that with discretion, children will not be treated equally -- and there could be more serious consequences, particularly for low-income and minority children.

"It was more of a broken-windows policy -- we're not going to tolerate anything, and we're going to send a strong message to kids."

The result, though, is that students who commit minor infractions are routinely processed by the police when the schools could better handle the situation, Dvorchak believes. "My hope is that we can become less reliant on law enforcement for school disciplinary matters. We had testimony yesterday from two parents whose kids were disciplined for fights. In both of them, the student was essentially the victim and had valid self-defense claims -- but they had school suspensions, they had to appear in juvenile court, they had to do community service." Such stories have convinced the panel, which Dvorchak describes as "a pretty diverse group of legislators, law enforcement and people in education," that "zero tolerance needs to go away."

Which isn't to say everyone agrees on what needs to take its place. "This is still a preliminary discussion," she stresses. "We don't have a bill draft yet, and there hasn't even been a vote on what will ultimately be submitted as a bill. Those are conversations we'll need to have down the road.

"The devil will be in the details. But I think there's a large consensus that automatic mandatory expulsion is not good policy, and we need to take a case-by-case view of every child in every disciplinary scenario."

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Forgiving my Columbine High School friend, Dylan Klebold."